saving faith

a sermon, based on Matthew 14.22-33, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2017

Jesus saving Peter from sinking, Caspar Luyken (1672-1708)

Peter sinking beneath the waves is us. For who among us has not known of a time and, as we live, again will know times when we, at the cruel hand of whate’er the cause, are immersed in onrushing waves of anxiety or fear? And who among us, at such grave moments, as Peter, has not cried out, with whate’er the words that burst from our burdened breasts, “Lord, save me!”?

For me, at this very instant, I am stricken, sickened by what has transpired in Charlottesville, Virginia, and all that it says, screams to me about our unresolved American problem about racial superiority and, the truth be more widely told, our American problem about human supremacy of any kind that in its alway deadly ways demeans “the other” as a lesser form of humanity, and, therefore, as all this exists, insidiously, virulently, and brazenly out in the open, our American phobia about the universal equality of all people.

And all this painfully, tragically reminding us that in this life, though, yes, comforted by the joys of sunlit days and starry nights in the blessed fellowship of family and friends with strength of purpose and goodly labor at hand, sorrow is an ever-equal companion; perhaps more than the equal of joy for those among us who daily wrestle with generational cultural, racial, socio-economic deprivations difficult, perhaps impossible to overcome. And, in either case, for them or for us, when immersed in the waves, how many of us most of the time or even once had Peter’s experience of a savior walking across the water, lifting us, saving us from the peril of drowning?

If we haven’t or don’t know of anyone who has, then what more do we make, can we make of this story than a fanciful, ghostly tale? At best, it is a metaphor, a symbol of a common human, though oft vain hope for supernatural rescue from worldly trial and tribulation. Therefore, even at best, it is hardly a worthy foundation for our faith, which is the subject at the heart of the story.

And here’s the irony. Jesus, the miracle-worker, yes, made the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead rise. Yet, before inaugurating his ministry, Jesus spurned the temptation of the devil to leap from the pinnacle of the temple to prove that he was the Son of God, saying, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”,[1] therefore, rejecting miracles as the basis of faith. Rather faith – assurance, confidence, trust – in the presence and benevolence of God, oft in the face of life’s contrary evidence, is the miracle.

This is the faith, however small, unformed and unfocused, that led Peter to test himself: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus, as I imagine him, delighted, thrilled that one of his disciples would dare risk a bold, uninhibited literal leap of faith, said, “Come.” Yet, straightway, Peter, the salt spray spattering his face, the wind tearing through his hair, took his eyes off Jesus. Beginning to sink, he cried, “Lord, save me!” Jesus reached out and rescued him.

An olden hymn comes to mind:

O love that wilt not let me go,

I rest my weary soul in thee;

I give thee back the life I owe,

that in thine ocean depths its flow

may richer, fuller be.[2]

These words mirror this story. Jesus does not promise nor does our faith in Jesus profess that the storms of life, whether in Charlottesville or anywhere else, will not threaten us, for they do and will; that trial and tribulation will not darken our door, for they do and will; that death to this life in this world will not befall us, for it will. Jesus, in taking our flesh and in his life, death, and resurrection, does promise and our faith does profess that he who is greater than the winds and the waves, greater than trial and tribulation, greater than our anxiety and fear, greater than death reaches out and holds us forever in his saving hands.

 

Illustration: Jesus saving Peter from sinking, Caspar Luyken (1672-1708)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 4.5-7

[2] From the hymn, verse 1, O love that wilt not let me go (1882); words by George Matheson (1842-1906), Scottish minister, poet, and hymn writer.

God or god? (part 2 of 2)

David Hume, 18th century Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, staring unblinkingly into the face of evil, speculated about the nature of God (in my view, rearticulating the psalmist’s ardent plea: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”): “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence evil?”[1]

American poet and writer Archibald MacLeish breathed new life into this ancient and abiding protest, placing this tart riposte on the lips of a character in one of his plays, a modernist retelling of the Bible’s story of Job: “If God is God He is not good. If God is good He is not God.”[2]

I treasure these words of zealous uncertainty about the existence of God, and, if not that, then the benevolence of God. As a lifelong inveterate inquirer with a deep-seated streak of iconoclasm, I have faith in (I hasten to write, not disbelief or mistrust, but rather) doubt. Doubt is a companion of my faith, allowing, encouraging me to question and question again the validity of the truths of God I hold dear. And nothing, absolutely nothing stirs my impassioned, angst-ridden wonderment more or at all than evidences of incarnate evil; gazing steadily, like Hume, in the contorted face of which I join the sorrowing song of the psalmist: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?[3]

In this, I am comforted by the psalmist’s rediscovery of faith; in the shadows of the ills of evil, sounding, singing a righteous “Nevertheless!”:

Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.

In you, our ancestors trusted.

They trusted and you delivered them.

To you they cried, and were saved.

In you they trusted and were not put to shame.[4]

For me and my faith, God’s deliverance is not, cannot be found in freedom from want and need, suffering and sorrow, no matter how earnestly, sometimes desperately we yearn for it; at least not in this life in this world where mortality is an ineluctable reality. Rather I see God’s salvation whenever I, in the words of the hymn, “survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died.”[5] For me and my faith, Jesus’ crucifixion and death is both God’s response to my and the psalmist’s cry – “I am with you always and, in life and in death, in all ways” – and God’s rejoinder to evil – “You can kill me, but you cannot defeat me, for nothing can conquer unconditional love.”

Deo gratias.

 

Footnotes:

[1] From Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) by David Hume (1711-1776)

[2] The character Nickles in J.B.: A Play in Verse (1959) by Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982)

[3] Psalm 22.1a

[4] Psalm 22.3-5

[5] Words (1707) by Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

God or god? (part 1 of 2)

My daily starting, mid, and ending point: I am a Christian believer. I ascribe to a faith, a conviction about, a confidence in the existence of a God as revealed in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. As I read and reflect on Jesus’ story as recorded in the Bible’s gospel accounts, as I believe in Jesus, I behold in him the incarnation, the embodiment in space and time, the enfleshment in human life of divine love and justice, unconditional generosity and equality.

On most days, my faith holds together, makes sense to me and holds me together, allowing, encouraging me to act with love and justice toward all around me. (As human, I confess that I am limited by my perceptions and perspectives, my preferences and prejudices; how I view, understand, and respond to others and things. In this, my love and justice, even at my best, are provisional, falling short of the perfect impartiality of my God.)

By “on most days,” I mean that I can hold, sometimes in anguished tension, this world’s lights and shadows, joys and sorrows (or perhaps, truth to tell, I maintain this equilibrium largely less by conscious attention to life’s dichotomies and rather by focusing on whatever is before me, momentarily mindless of the ongoing cosmic clash between good and evil), so to remain upright and moving forward in seeking to do love and justice, in striving to be loving and just.

Then comes a day that disrupts, destroys my balance, painfully reminding me anew of life’s fragility and the friability of my equipose.

Sunday, June 12, was such a day in Orlando, Florida, and swiftly around the world. A person, driven by animus toward the LGBTQIA community and, perhaps as now speculated by some, psych-social/psycho-sexual maladjustments, and, doubtless, motivations unnamed and unknown, even to himself, murdered 49 people, wounding another 53.

There have been other days like this. Many. Too many.[1] More, it seems to me, as I age. Or maybe in my aging I am more aware of our inescapable mortality, thus more alert to the stages, especially when accelerated by vicious acts of human hands, along our inexorable human pilgrimage from birth to death.

In my grief, my hurt, my anger, my helplessness, I cry out, borrowing the psalmist’s words of eloquent despair:[2]

My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?

Why are you so far from helping us, from the words of our groaning?

O my God, we cry by day, but you do not answer and by night, but find no rest.

My God, is it because you do not hear or care or because you are not there? Are you God (more or less), the creator and judger and reconciler of all – good and evil – things? Or are you god (more or less), a creature of human invention, a figment of human imagination?

 

Footnotes:

[1] I am especially mindful of the approaching June 17 one-year anniversary of the murders of nine people at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, SC, by a person acting out of a virulent, violent racism.

[2] Psalm 22.1-2

who’s God?/whose God?

On December 15, 2015, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, Associate Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College (Illinois), was placed on paid administrative leave. She had worn a hijab, an Islamic head scarf. Explaining her action, she wrote in a Facebook post: “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book.[1] We worship the same God.”

That last statement led to her suspension. The college administration considered Dr. Hawkins’ position violated the school’s Statement of Faith, which, in part, reads: WE BELIEVE in one sovereign God…the everlasting Father, His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and the Holy Spirit, the giver of life…(God) has revealed Himself and His truth in the created order, in the Scriptures, and supremely in Jesus Christ…(Who), conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, was true God and true man, existing in one person and without sin…

The professor’s action and the school’s reaction provoked a variety of responses. A number of students protested, demanding that Dr. Hawkins be reinstated. Christians, well known and not, have expressed views supportive and critical of the professor and the college; some taking sides in the debate on the sameness or dissimilarity of the God of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim revelation and understanding. Discussions were held between Dr. Hawkins and the administration granting an opportunity for her to clarify her beliefs and for the school to examine further the inconsistencies of her stance with its tradition and doctrine. An impasse was reached, leading, earlier this month, to the presentation of a Notice of Recommendation to Initiate Termination-for-Cause Proceedings, the initial step of the school’s process for employment actions regarding tenured faculty.

I am sympathetic to Dr. Hawkins. I believe that the love and justice of Jesus call me to be in solidarity with all people, believers and non-believers of every kind. I also am sympathetic to Wheaton College. I believe that an institution, by the very necessity of its existence, has the right and authority to establish and maintain a coherent set of principles. Therefore, I perceive, sadly, that this conflict will have no mutually agreeable solution.

Regarding the issue of whether Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God, I have three answers.

Yes, given that the three faiths claim Abraham as their common ancestor.

No, given that the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity (in one fashion, articulated in Wheaton College’s Statement of Faith) distinguish Christianity from Judaism and Islam.

And, given that the God in whom I believe is larger than my understanding (and that of any person or group, religion or faith tradition), only God knows.

Footnote:

[1] “People of the book” is a common, shared descriptor for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, all who ground their religious comprehension and devotion in a sacred text, the Tanakh, the Bible, and the Koran, respectively.